The tyranny of the Awesome Supervisor

This post is by Dr Catherine Ayers, who was a PhD candidate in the School of Sociology at the Australian National University, researching the multiple and sometimes conflicting ways we conceptualise and experience ‘Nature’, specifically in the realm of national parks and other protected areas. She has been known to nerd it up as an intern at ANU Research Training but now she works in the ANU school of Law. Since she wrote this post, Cathy has become a Dr. Congratulations Cathy!

I am approaching the end of my PhD. With just a few revisions to do before I submit, now is the perfect time to procrastinate reflect on my experiences. Like many of you, I’ve been an avid reader of Thesis Whisperer throughout my candidature, and it’s no secret that one of the major problems faced by PhD students is inadequate or inept supervision.

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 3.28.15 pmWe should acknowledge that supervising is really hard to do well. There isn’t a whole lot of supervision training available, and a lot of well-intentioned supervisors aren’t malicious, they just get it a bit wrong sometimes.

But sadly, a supervisors few are simply Asshats.

I have what I like to call an Awesome Supervisor. Let’s call him Dr Awesome. Dr Awesome is diligent, encouraging, supportive, genuinely cares about me and my professional development, and we get along really well on an interpersonal level. Dr Awesome is also an incredibly accomplished, well-liked, and respected academic. I learn a lot just by watching how he does things, and I have infinite respect and admiration for him.

Those of you who have difficult relationships with your supervisor(s) may be thinking ‘stop rubbing it in!’ I assure you, this is not my intent. Reading the posts and comments on TW about negative supervision experiences makes me feel all the bad feels, and I wish I could give you all a big hug and tell you that you’re amazing, and it’s all going to be ok.

These sad stories leave me feeling pretty guilty, because, y’know… my supervisor is an Awesome Supervisor. But upon further reflection, my situation of having an Awesome Supervisor actually comes with its own set of challenges.

It’s taken me a long time to feel comfortable sending drafts to Dr Awesome for fear of disappointing him. I wasn’t scared because I thought he would yell at me, or give me mean feedback, or joke with colleagues about my stupidity (things that say, an Asshat supervisor might do). I was just worried that he would think less of me. I know this has more to do with my own insecurities than anything he has ever said or done, but it’s a particular kind of vulnerability that has affected my progress over the years.

Having an Awesome Supervisor has also meant that I’ve found it quite hard to ask questions or clarify things he’s said. I haven’t wanted to appear silly or uninformed, so in some of our meetings I have done lots of smiling and nodding while making a mental note to google lots of stuff pronto. Again, more to do with me and my insecurities than him!

I don’t buy into the “tough supervision is good for students because it makes them more independent” trope. I think this is often just an excuse for Asshat supervisors to be Asshats. But I have a sneaking concern that working with someone like Dr Awesome has perhaps sheltered me a little too much from some of the tougher aspects of working in academia.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve had a decent share of troubles during my candidature. I received a heavy dose of Academic Arrogance early in my candidature, and I pitched a tent in the Valley of Shit for my entire second year. But throughout all of those struggles, I knew Dr Awesome had my back. How am I going to go in the big wide world without that close and reliable source of support?

I wish this could be one of those blog posts where at about this point I talk about a momentous event that changed my whole outlook on things, and that everything is totally fine now. But I think that would be a bit disingenuous, because I still find showing him my work difficult.

But recently I have realised that there are some pretty solid reasons to trust Dr Awesome that he will give me feedback on my work. These are the things I try to keep in mind when all the scary “but what if I’m terrible at this?!” thoughts come creeping in:

  1. He’s just as invested in this project as I am.
  2. He takes my education seriously, and he really wants me to do well. So if there are improvements to be made, he’ll let me know. If he says the work is good, I should just believe him and leave it at that.
  3. He’s a nice guy, and nice people tend to not become awful when giving feedback.
  4. He knows me and my work patterns really well, and carefully considers strategies that will help me move forward when things aren’t working.

I still have to actively keep these things in mind to keep my insecurities at bay. So even though Dr Awesome is awesome and not at all an Asshat, there are still challenges to be dealt with when it comes to the supervision of my project. But I’d be really interested to hear from other students what kinds of strategies they use to keep their insecurities in check when it comes to interacting with their supervisors.

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26 thoughts on “The tyranny of the Awesome Supervisor

  1. Great point! My… ummm… not-so-awesome supervisor actually ended up in jail for a while (personal drama, not work-related!). I lucked out and was transferred to an amazing supervisor. After the transition, I confess I was a bit disappointed to find that having an Awesome Supervisor didn’t make everything easy, lol. It’s definitely been an adjustment. Good, but still an adjustment.
    Thanks for the post. It’s good to hear another student talk about the challenges of working with someone great. 🙂

  2. Supervisors are not substitute parents.

    I’m very happy to have realised this in good time and in turn, to be finding ways and means of traversing second-year/the “valley of sh*t” sans someone to hold my hand (e.g. the initiation of a local Shut Up and Write! group, reconnecting with my “passions” etc. etc.).

    I may emotionally mature just yet! ❤

  3. Working with difficult people can be a struggle, but it is a great learning experience, teaches perseverance, builds character, and you learn that you are stronger than you think you are, but it is nice to have someone who works with you and is understanding and compassionate.

    • This is true – but I’m glad that I had the opportunity to learn these lessons outside of PhD candidature. From 21 – 23 I had the Worst Boss Ever. Imagine the Devil Wears Prada with extra agression and random acts of kindness so you never knew where you stood. Learning to deal with him was an education. There’s an upside to that kind of terrible workplace experience – I certainly don’t fear people in positions of authority like I used to.

  4. This made me a laugh a bit because when I was right at the end of my thesis I was complaining to my husband that my supervisor was being too nice and maybe wasn’t giving me enough tough feedback. I had some expectations (based on other people’s terrible experiences) that my very professional, calm, confident, competent supervisor should be ripping what I did to shreds. My husband pointed out that regardless of what kind of feedback I was being given I would have a problem with it because I was just generally jumpy (and, the unstated second clause, had gone a bit mad). It was like a lightening bolt. I thought, wow, you are completely right. Just enjoy someone being good at their job – sooner or later you will walk right into a terrible work situation!

  5. Yes I’ve done all those things. I have two of the world’s nicest supervisors who have become friends as we’ve done some non-PhD related work together, and they are also international superheroes in my field … it makes it so hard to show them anything, or ask ‘stupid’ questions… I would die if they were disappointed.. hence progress is slow. This is not rational thinking of course and it’s good to hear I’m not the only one ‘suffering’ this way : )

  6. Gosh, this really spoke to me. I’m in my first year and have an awesome supervisor (who also supervised my Masters thesis), but submitting drafts/ideas to him is something I dread for the very reason you say (imposter syndrome still looms large over me). I’ve been trying very hard to overcome the fear and I’m glad I’m not the only one who has experienced it.

  7. I really relate to your post. I consider myself to have an awesome supervisor, and always have to talk myself into sending them drafts because showing them anything unfinished feels terrifying.

    Usually I can just about manage to do this convincing work, but I’ve been in the valley of shit for about 3 months now and am too scared to tell them for fear of their disappointment in my lack of progress during this time, and am worried my present lack of ability will be so obvious compared to their awesomeness – so lots of nodding/smiling in meetings which isn’t really a viable long term strategy.

  8. Story of my life. I admire my awesome supervisor so much, he has exactly the same characteristics and qualities as described in the blog post…and I put so much pressure on myself all the time because I don’t want to disappoint him. I want to look smart and engaged, but I actually feel like a little girl inside whenever we meet. It’s tough to overcome these personal fears, but I guess it just takes time and experience!

  9. Great post! My supervisor was fantastic (with some growing pains) and continues to be a close collaborator. But it comes with its own set of challenges that you feel guilty about complaining about to those with Asshat supervisors.

  10. Great post! This really strikes home for me, because this is exactly my experience with my supervisor. I feel like I’ve taken twice the amount of time to do everything simply out of fear of disappointing him. I also know exactly what you mean; I often fear I’ve been pampered and will not be able to deal with all the academic criticism in future! Good luck to you as you wrap up!

  11. Thanks for this post. I fall into this category too. Both my supervisors are amazing, passionate, hard working, supportive and intelligent women. In fact I moved across the world to have them as my supervisors. I did have some fear starting out, mainly around asking stupid questions and wasting their time reading work that wasn’t of a high standard. I realised pretty quickly that I just had to get over this as I needed to get feedback on my writing and ideas as soon as possible. I always do solid preparation before my supervisor meetings including having any questions written down in a clear and succinct way. I also voice record our conversations (with their permission or else that would be creepy) so that I can listen back and make further notes on our conversations. This is a great way to confirm exactly what has been said and what action I need to take. Both my supervisors are incredibly knowledgeable and experienced. There have been many times when they start talking about theories and ideas that I am unfamiliar with. When this happens I am always honest and acknowledge this. I then ask what texts they recommend I read to fill my knowledge gaps. So far this approach has worked extremely well. Really my main concern is that I do not want to waste their time and the best way I feel to combat that is to work hard, genuinely do my best and be appreciative of their time and efforts in supporting my research. And at the end of their day I am so grateful of their support.

  12. I find it really difficult to assimilate the two different ideas, the first one being “don’t send you supervisor garbage and waste their time. Wait until something is in a reasonable first draft”. And then there is the other argument “send in lots of small amounts of writing frequently for comment”.

    I find that if I try and write the first full draft that I cannot pull all my ideas together and have a cohesive piece of work. So I find myself with lots of ‘chunks’ of writing that are difficult to join together into a cohesive whole. That’s when my confidence really drops and I find myself writing round and round in circles and not completing pieces of writing. I would then force myself to just send things in.

    Now, I am further along with my writing, and I have changed the way I look at my work and they way my supervisor will receive it. I’ve worked out that it is okay to send something that is not completely formed and that I can receive valuable feedback. It is also unwise to waste my supervisor’s time so I add a lot of questions and comments into my documents so that it is clear where I am unsure and needing ideas and suggestions. I still have a long way to go but I feel far more confident now than I did at the beginning of my candidature. I often remind myself that my supervisors are there to help, to guide and that they want me to succeed.

  13. I have two absolutely brilliant supervisors. I definitely worry about letting them down. Once, when I was particularly terrified of this, I said to them, “I just want to check in, is anything I’m doing not working for you”. They both pretty much instantly said no, everything’s fine, much to my shock. It made me feel better for a while but then the insecurities crept back in… At one point I did feel I let them down, unintentionally, due to…well… life happening, and I said “I feel like I’ve let you down”. They reassured my I hadn’t and reminded me that my PhD is about me feeling happy with what I’ve done and not them, and that they really believe in me… At difficult moments they’ve reminded me that my insecurities are a perfectly normal part of the journey and not to believe them… So I can only assume that my insecurities are my own and for me to deal with, not them. So now I try not to engage with my insecurities too much… A wise person once said to me “no fear, focus”… So when I feel those fears coming on, I just try to focus instead on what needs to be done…

  14. Thanks for the article Catherine! I think you raise some important points. I had a total of seven supervisors, at least one of whom was an Asshat and the final one was Awesome. My previous experiences with the Asshat made me nervous to seek feedback from the Awesome one, because each time I received an e-mail or had a meeting, I expected to be yelled at, put down and so on. That never happened, of course, but it didn’t stop me mentally preparing before opening each e-mail or going to each meeting. I think I had the same insecurities you describe when interacting with the Awesome supervisor, because I knew she was such an expert, but in the back of my mind was also the Asshat’s insults and a bit of Imposter Syndrome, thinking that perhaps the Asshat was right! It all worked out in the end. Prof Awesome got me through and I was happy with my work.

  15. I have a question. Has anyone ever told their “Dr Awesome” supervisors that they feel afraid of disappointing their supervisor? Has anyone used it as a stepping stone to progress in their research by talking about the problem with their “Dr Awesome?” I am asking because I just finished my masters with a Dr Unconsciously-an-Asshat, and am about to start a Ph.D. with someone whom I suspect will be a Dr Awesome. I already feel this fear of disappointing or embarrassing myself creeping up and my Ph.D. doesn’t start officially for two months! I’m thinking about biting the bullet and just telling him this is a hangup. Thoughts?
    By the way, great post! It reminded me that having a great supervisor will still present challenges as having a bad one, but those can be managed, too.

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  17. I really enjoyed this post. It’s actually a really good representation of my current situation too. I have an amazing supervisor. AMAZING. She’s smart, she’s a leader in her field, she’s a great teacher, she knows me well and always seems to know how to push me that little bit further so that I’m always learning, without leaving me feeling completely lost or deserted… and we genuinely get along really well. But I am always terrified that I’ll let her down, that she’ll realise I’m really not that good, and wonder why she’s invested so much into helping me. I worry when I send my drafts in that she’ll be disappointed with the quality of my work. She has never been anything but supportive and helpful and has never done anything to make me feel that way… as you say, imposter syndrome…

    One thing mentioned by someone else in the comments too, is guilt over ‘complaining’ to others about anything to do with my thesis. I know others who are having issues with their supervisors. I also know some who aren’t having issues per se, but I know they don’t have the positive relationship with their supervisor that I have with mine. I tend not to say very much in response, but I have worked with my supervisor on a number of projects for the last 2-3 years, so my good relationship with her is ‘known’ by my co-students. As a result, if I’m stuck and need just a friendly bit of support or an understanding ear, I find that I feel guilty (because I know I’m lucky with my supervisor). I have absolutely no complaints about my supervisor. I have however had trouble with writers’ block, frustration with draft edits, overwhelm, imposter syndrome, etc… and actually, at one point I tried to discuss this with a fellow student (one that I had been offering support to while she had some difficulties with her supervisor), and received a very negative and unsupportive response. As a result of that, I’ve pretty much resorted to ‘lone-wolfing’ it as much as possible. So for me, having an awesome supervisor has also meant isolation on some level – because others seem to be a little envious of that relationship, especially if they’re having difficulties with their own.

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  22. Hello…
    I am a Phd Student from India… I am stuck with this problem that my supervisor is so criticial about my work neither he helps in any way. Every time i take something the line often i hear is i could throw this away its such a piece of bad writing. Its being five years of my life and i am still struggling. Added to that he would start talking all unnecessary things like marriage etc.. or my way of life… its annoying he is a very senior academician all i know is i need to finish it up… its feels locked. . I can’t report such things as its pretty much common here.

    Just seeking some help on how to stop the voice in my head which says i can’t as every time i sit to write i can hear his sounds.. ringing..

    Some words to feel wanted and i am on the right track too would make a lot of difference…

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